Making Clay to Sculpt a Story

Writing often feels a lot like sculpting. The rewriting and revising is shaping and carving. The editing and proofreading is sanding and polishing. But you can’t do any of those things when you are staring at a blank page. Before you can sculpt and polish a story, you need words to create its clay.

That period of “making clay” can be a major stumbling block, especially if you expect your clay to be perfect right out of the box. Clay can vary in quality. Clay can have a certain loveliness of its own. But a lump of clay is not as beautiful, or meaningful, as a finished piece of art. Just as a first draft will never be your best work.

One of the challenges of starting a first draft is knowing that a lot of what I write isn’t going to make it into the finished work. It can be hard to put in time and effort on words that I may not like and that I’m likely to delete or replace with something better. That’s where the concept of making clay helps me push through.

If I think of a first draft as creating the clay that will be shaped into a story, then it’s easier to see the value of simply filling the blank page with a flow of thoughts. And it’s easier to let those thoughts come out, as they are, in that moment.

Stressing over making my words “right” on the first attempt is just time wasted, because making them “right” is something that will naturally happen at a later stage in the process. It isn’t time for “right” yet. It’s time to make the clay.

Once the page begins to fill with clay, a balancing act begins. Do I sculpt and polish the clay I have, or do I create more clay? If it’s a short piece, there may be just one round of clay making. In a novel, there will be many.

I typically need a balance between lightly sculpting what I have and moving on to make additional clay. After I write one chapter, I will go back and give it some shaping, but only enough to help me clearly see what I want to write next. As more chapters show up, that balance of sculpting and making clay can become more challenging.

In the beginning, the whole piece needs to take shape, so I can see where to remove or create more clay. I’m learning that it’s important (for me) to not put too much effort into sanding and polishing any single area until later in the process. Mainly because polishing too soon can make it really hard to remove a beloved phrase, sentence, or passage that no longer works once the book moves into its final form.

Not every writer works this way. Some have a completely different approach which is better for them. 

I prefer to work in phases: make the clay (first draft), shape the clay (rewrite), carve details (revise), sand rough areas (edit), and then polish the finished work (proofread).

Those phases sometimes overlap and, typically, are repeated multiple times on the same section. But it all begins with making the clay.

Without clay, I have nothing to sculpt.

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